For many companies, familiar advantages of the cloud, such as scalability and remote management, run into an obstacle in the storage sector. That problem is sticker shock.
Amid all the exuberance surrounding the migration to the cloud, many storage solutions are simply priced out of reach for budget-conscious enterprises.
Symform, a privately held firm based in Seattle, is taking dead aim at the pricing problem with a novel architecture it boasts will do nothing short of “reinventing” cloud storage.
“Cloud storage is an ideal way for businesses to backup their data for disaster recovery, anywhere access and sharing,” said Praerit Garg, Symform’s president and one of its co-founders. “The problem is that it’s just too expensive, forcing companies to leave a lot of data unprotected.”
Indeed, price is where Symform is looking to carve out its niche, boasting that its Storage Cloud system is 10 times cheaper than traditional cloud deployments, while also touting its security features and ease of setup and use.
So what’s the trick?
Garg explained that Symform’s system “operates kind of like a peer-to-peer networking system where bits and pieces of unused storage from multiple computers are assembled into a functioning service.” Symform builds on the premise that the locally stored, commodity hardware housed in companies’ data centers is vastly underused. It points to an internal survey from Microsoft and another from Spiceworks that polled SMBs, with each finding that roughly 50 percent of the disk space on PCs and servers was unused.
So Symform offers prospective users a proposition: submit your unused capacity to its network in return for inexpensive, highly secure storage in the cloud. “Companies are able to exchange cheap local storage for more valuable storage in the cloud, combining the cost efficiencies of commodity hardware with the scalability of the cloud,” Garg said.
That means customers’ data is stored across Symform’s highly distributed network of local storage resources. That nets Symform a cost advantage over other, traditional cloud storage providers, which are saddled with all the overhead expenses associated with maintaining a vast data center, such as bandwidth, cooling and real estate.
So how do those economics translate for end users? To get started, Symform offers 100 GB of storage when a firm signs up and configures its systems to connect to the network. Then, up to three individual users receive unlimited storage for $10 per month or $100 per year, with each additional user billed at $3 per month or $30 per year and no device limits. Servers are billed at $50 per month or $500 a year.
On Tuesday, Symform unveiled a referral program through which users can potentially double their amount of free storage. In addition to the 100 GB of free storage customers receive when they sign up, Symform is offering an additional 10 GB for each referral and 20 GB if that customer configures its system within 24 hours, capped at an extra 100 GB for a total of 200 GB.
That referral program is Symform’s latest effort to broaden its footprint and get the word out about its novel twist on cloud storage. Garg admitted that the cloud storage market these days is marked by a “dichotomy,” with a wide gulf between the hype surrounding the sector (i.e., high valuations for firms like Box.net and Dropbox and bullish predictions of sharp increases in data volumes) and the lackluster pace of business adoption.
“We believe the reason is that the cost of cloud storage is just too expensive,” he said. “At Symform, we’re providing a radically different approach to storage. As with all disruptive technologies, education is our biggest hurdle.”
Part of that education process, indeed, much of it, focuses on security. After all, the notion of turning your repository of data over to a distributed architecture might at first blush seem a risky proposition. But security, Symform argues, is one of its chief selling points.
To begin with, Symform’s Storage Cloud system encrypts the data it collects with the 256-bit AES standard. Encrypted data is then divided into 64 MB blocks, which are each, in turn, shredded into 64 1 MB fragments. Next, Symform adds 32 “parity fragments” to each block, resulting in 96 fragments with an inherent redundancy and security. Those fragments are then randomly distributed to 96 devices across Symform’s global Storage Cloud in a process the company calls RAID 96. Symform’s monitoring system provides for a self-healing mechanism that automatically regenerates the data stored on a machine that has failed on another computer. Thanks to the parity fragments, that system delivers a high level of redundancy.
“This means that 33 independent, geo-distributed systems would have to fail at the same time for Symform to lose customer data,” Garg said.
Looking ahead, one of the next big items on Symform’s roadmap is the debut of support for the Mac. The company is also aiming to get its service “baked into” NAS devices and is planning an integration with Connectwise.
Kenneth Corbin is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C. He has written on politics, technology and other subjects for more than four years, most recently as the Washington correspondent for InternetNews.com, covering Congress, the White House, the FCC and other regulatory affairs. He can be found on LinkedIn here.